A Legacy of Sustainability

The history of subsistence in Wailau and Halawa

Wakea (Father Sky) and Papahanaumoku (Earth Mother) gave birth to Ho`ohokukalani (the one who creates the stars of heaven). Wakea fell in love with his own daughter, and together they had a stillborn child. Papahanaumoku was furious. She named the child Haloa; and buried the bulb-shaped infant in the soft earth. The first taro plant was born from Haloa.

Wakea and Ho`ohokukalani’s second child, also named Haloa, became the ancestor of all kanaka maoli. The younger Haloa was to take care of the oldest Haloa for eternity. In exchange, the older Haloa would nourish and guarantee the survival of his younger brother and descendants. From those ancient times, sustainability in Hawaii was set in motion. In Molokai it is still part of the living culture

Viable self-sufficient communities

Halawa and Wailau valleys, on Molokai, illustrate viable communities that supported themselves through subsistence practices well into the beginning of the 20th century.

A 1940 study by E.S. Handy estimates that before Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawaii, Wailau Valley had about 80 acres of lo`i (taro patches). An anonymous Maui News article in 1939 says lo`i in Wailau covered as much as 200 acres. These numbers mean that the taro production in Wailau would be sufficient to feed anywhere between 1,900 to 4,700 Hawaiians annually.

A National Park Service (NPS) study done in Halawa says archaeologists estimated the lo`i to cover 55 acres of the valley’s lands. In 1877, a native Hawaiian counted 1,032 lo`i in Halawa Valley, according to the study. If true, Halawa’s lo`i would be able to feed about 1,300 Hawaiians annually.

Archaeological work

Windy McElroy, a University of Hawaii archaeologist, has been going on trips to Wailau Valley for the past three summers, doing extensive research there. McElroy prepared a research draft about Wailau Valley, which stands as the most detailed archeological study of the irrigation complexes on the valley’s 2,313 acres. But the research is far from being completed.

“We left with more questions than when we started,” said Steve Eminger, a volunteer helping McElroy in the project.

McElroy have carbon-dated the earliest lo`i in Wailau Valley to 1,200 AD. Archeologists have dated lo`i in Halawa Valley to as early as 650 AD, although Eminger said this date is being questioned recently by scholars.

According to the NPS study, archeologists have described Halawa’s lo`i as the most complex type of prehistoric irrigation systems in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Around 1,300 AD Halawa had one of the densest populations in Hawaii, close to 650 people per square mile. Without readily available food sources, it would have been impossible to sustain this population in such a geographically isolated valley.

However, Wailau Valley’s irrigation system may have been just as complex. On McElroy’s draft, longtime Wailau resident Sarah Sykes described oddly placed rocks in the lo`i, as well as stone walls resembling abruptly unfinished work. After a heavy storm that poured more water than in a whole week of steady rain, she realized why those lo`i were oddly built. They had been engineered to divert water. “Not a speck of soil was washed out, not a single plant uprooted, and not a single stone dislodged from its place,” the draft read.

Food surplus

Bishop Museum’s Molokai: Site Survey, prepared by Catherine Summers, estimates the pre-contact population of Halawa Valley at 500, and Wailau’s between 100 and 200.

If true, far more taro was produced in Halawa and Wailau valleys than could be consumed locally.

McElroy’s draft said Pa`i`ai (hard poi) produced in Wailau was wrapped in ti leaves and shipped by boat to Kalaupapa and other places on Molokai.

Although poi was a traditional staple of Hawaiian diet, it was also considered a delicacy. But McElroy’s draft says that it was so abundant in Wailau that donkeys used to eat pa`i`ai. It is probably the only report of donkeys being fed poi.

More than poi

McElroy’s draft says Hawaiians also cultivated wauke trees in Wailau Valley. From those trees Hawaiians made two kinds of kapa (cloth): pa`ikukui, a pale yellow kapa dyed with liquid from the kukui tree bark; and mahunali`i, a thin, fine-scented kapa dyed with noni’s bark. This later kapa was reserved for royalty, and used in sorcery and in idol covering.

The NPS study says in Halawa, pre-contact Hawaiians also cultivated `ape (elephant’s ear plant), pi`oi (bitter yam), `awa, hau, kamani, coconut, ulu (breadfruit), pia, noni, mai`a (banana), ko (sugar cane) and ti plants.

Hawaiians also picked opihi, and fished akule, mullet, lolo, barracuda, manini, moi and uhu.

Life in Wailau

Lava rocks from the valley are of a weak structure. Eminger said he found tools crafted from rocks of higher density. Those rocks possibly came from different areas, a potential indication of bartering.

Until World War I about 45 families still lived in Wailau. Wooden houses lined up from pali to pali near the shore. Up in the valley, near the lo`i, thatched houses were more common. A school and a church served the small community. A western doctor living in the East End would come over through a treacherous trail to service Wailau, but the population also relied on traditional Hawaiian medicines.

In the mid 1910s a large flood damaged the entire village. Rachel Naki and her family were the last residents to leave Wailau. In 1946 a large tsunami demolished what was left from the abandoned structures. Walter Naki, a direct descendant of the late Rachel Naki, now goes back and forth to Wailau, ferrying tourists and residents on his boat.

Life in Halawa

Very few valleys in the state are blueprinted like Halawa, running almost parallel to the equator. This enables the valley to receive sunlight throughout most of the day. Couple this with abundant water sources and Halawa becomes an optimal place for farming, especially taro.

John Stokes, curator of ethnology at the Bishop Museum, surveyed Halawa in 1909 and recorded 13 medium-sized heaiu in the lower sloopes, and two large ones in the higher slopes.

The traditional Hawaiian way of life continued in Halawa well up mid 20th century. Pilipo Solatario was born and raised in the valley. He said life in the valley was “work, work, work.”

Children would wake up before sunrise to prepare breakfast. Then, still in the darkness, the work on lo`i would start. Solatario said he would work until it became hot. Then he would catch fish, prepare dinner, and do other things, like mending fishing nets. On the later part of the day, he would go back to work on the lo`i.

During school days, Solatario said he still put time on the lo`i, until “we would see our teacher coming down the hill.” A teacher would drive 15 miles to teach in the school, which had one classroom. Students attended that school until eight grade, when they transferred to Kilohana School, on the east end.

Halawa had more than houses. It had a post-office, two churches, and even a store.

From the slopes of Halawa Valley, Solatario witnessed a tidal wave that destroyed a lot of homes in April 1, 1946. A second tidal wave, in 1957, ruined most lo`i. Most people abandoned Halawa then. Today most of the valley is covered with alien vegetation. Only a few lo`i are still visible.

First settlements on Molokai

Molokai’s east end is protected from large winter swells, and is home to abundant water resources. It was probably there that the Polynesians first settled on Molokai.

Most archaeologists agree Halawa Valley was colonized at least 1,350 years ago, according to NPS. The archaeology significance of Halawa Valley is priceless – it represents the longest known period of continuous Hawaiian cultural development.

Population numbers

Summers’ research estimated 10,500 Hawaiians living on Molokai at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawaii.

When the first missionary came to Molokai, in 1832, the Missionary Herald estimated the population of Molokai at 8,000. Four years later, a more detailed account calculated 8,700 people island wide.

Most of the population loss in the 53 years between Captain Cook’s and the missionaries’ arrival was probably due to diaspora. By 1832, elsewhere in the state, the Hawaiian race had already suffered huge losses to diseases brought by the westerners.

Away from the other islands, Molokai thrived on subsistence well after other islands were already surviving on trading. This fact alone, which helped keep Molokai isolated, probably protected the decimation of the Hawaiian race that was already ravaging the state.

Subsistence farming cannot be looked at as a primitive way of living. Instead, it helped perpetuate not only the Hawaiian culture, but the race itself.

Creation of Hawaiian homesteads

Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana`ole served in King Kalakaua’s royal Cabinet. After the overthrown of Queen Liliu`okalani, the appointed heir to the throne left Hawaii in a self-exile. In 1902 he returned home, and in 1903 he was elected to represent Hawaii in the United States Congress. From all his achievements during his 19-year term, one still affects Hawaii today, 85 years after his death – the creation of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

Approximately 200,000 acres of land were set aside as Hawaiian Homelands for homesteading by native Hawaiians. A Hawaiian blood quantum of 50 percent or more qualifies natives to receive homestead lands at almost no cost. Some say this blood quantum is aimed at limiting land distribution, since the Hawaiian race is steadily dwindling. But Kalaniana`ole originally designed the bill to limit the blood quantum to no less than 1/32.

Since 1960, the Hawaiian Homes Commission, a federal agency, transferred its responsibility to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), a state agency. This happened because Hawaii was admitted to the Union in 1959. However, the U.S. federal government still has oversight responsibilities over DHHL, including the right to sue for breach of trust.

The homestead system may not be perfect; it has even been accused of denying land distribution to Hawaiians because of the high blood quantum required. But the system does give land to Hawaiians, and many are hopeful the blood quantum will be revised.

Subsistence in modern era

Hawaiians, a people intrinsically connected with the land and the sea since its embryonic stage, may have in this connection their main weapon to protect their culture. Subsistence means less dependence on foreign capital. All other four main Hawaiian Islands are largely dependent on tourism. Without visitors their economy may collapse, as it was already seen on Kauai after hurricane Iniki.

But on Molokai the tourism industry, although welcome, is still a small chunk of the local revenue. The island depends heavily on subsistence practices. Those practices are inherently connected with the culture. The product of the land is considered a sibling to Hawaiians. Their father is the sky, and their mother is the earth.

As long as Molokai, the only island with a native Hawaiian majority, focuses on preserving Hawaiian traditions, Haloa will continue to nourish and assure the continuation of the Hawaiian race.


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